With Tuesday's launch of two HD DVD players from Toshiba, the public gets its chance to decide whether that format or its rival, Blu-ray, is the rightful heir to the DVD.
In the public relations battle between the warring technologies, HD DVD scored a victory by getting to market first. Toshiba's HD-A1 ($500) and higher-end HD-XA1 ($800) players hit store shelves this week, two months before the first Blu-ray player is scheduled to go on sale.
This is a high-stakes game, and not just for the movie studios, electronics manufacturers or software companies with a piece of the $24 billion home video market. Consumers could lose big by betting on the wrong technology.
As the VHS-Betamax battle showed three decades ago, such confrontations are usually a winner-take-all affair. In that instance, VHS triumphed and studios quickly abandoned the Betamax format. Betamax owners were left with no films to watch and thousands of dollars invested in worthless video equipment.
At this early stage, some analysts believe that casual movie fans should wait for a winner to emerge. Technologies are always fraught with glitches and setbacks and typically are more expensive when they're launched than after they've been on the market for a while. At a time when a low-end DVD player costs $50, the price for an HD DVD machine starts at $500. A top-end Blu-ray player may run as much as $1,800.
"These aren't products for cost-conscious consumers yet," said IDC analyst Josh Martin.
For TV aficionados who like owning the top tube on the block, there are a few things to consider before buying. (Click here for CNET.com's comments on the subject.)
Neither HD DVD nor Blu-ray can offer movie titles from all seven of the top movie studios. That means buyers of one disc player may be prevented from watching a movie from a studio that doesn't support the format.
Seven studios currently back Blu-ray, while three support HD DVD, and two of those also support Blu-ray. Only Universal Studios supports HD DVD exclusively.
"Content, content, content"
For Andy Parsons, chairman of the Blu-ray Disc Promotion Committee in the U.S., the deciding factor for consumers should be "content, content, content," Parsons said.
"It's as important as location is when buying a house," Parsons said. "Remember, you're not buying this equipment because it looks good with your furniture. You're buying it because you want to watch movies. We have a fairly significant leg up because we've brought to market a wider array of (movie studios)."
The HD DVD camp has promised that nearly 200 movie titles will be available on that format by the end of the year.
Coinciding with the launch of Toshiba's new disc players, Warner Bros. Entertainment is releasing three film titles on the HD DVD format: "Million Dollar Baby," "The Last Samurai" and "Phantom of the Opera."
Warner Bros. is also set to release titles for Blu-ray players when the first one (Samsung's BD-P1000) goes on sale in June, said Stephen Nickerson, Warner Home Video's senior vice president of market management.
When it comes to price, HD DVD wins out at least in the early stages. Initial cost estimates for building blue-laser disc players is more than $400, according to In-Stat. The research firm predicted that the costs should fall considerably by 2010.
While Toshiba's players range from $500 to $800, the least expensive Blu-ray machine is $999. Blu-ray, however, will be available on a bigger selection of players.
Continued: What's coming from the Blu-ray camp...